Symbolism is Real
The Gemara (Horayot 12a and Keritut 6a) states that one should make sure to see the following foods on Rosh Hashanah as a good omen: Gourd, leek, spinach, and dates. Rashi explains that these fruits and vegetables are symbolically good to see on Rosh Hashanah because they grow faster than other fruits and vegetables. The Gemara in Masechet Keritut, however, states that one should eat these items, as opposed to merely seeing them as the Gemara in Masechet Horayot states. Indeed, this custom of eating these symbolic foods is codified by the Tur and Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 583). The Sefer Kol Bo writes that one should recite prayers in the form of “Yehi Ratzon” texts corresponding to the respective names of these items (as printed in Machzorim).
It is therefore customary to eat black-eyed peas, gourd, leek, spinach, dates, pomegranates, apples in honey, and head of lamb on the nights of Rosh Hashanah.
When These Symbolic Foods Are Eaten
By eating fruits or vegetables before a meal, one places himself in a doubtful situation regarding whether an after-blessing is required on these items or perhaps one fulfills his obligation to do so by reciting Birkat Hamazon at the conclusion of the meal. Since one should preferably not place one’s self into a doubtful situation regarding blessings, it is preferable to eat the aforementioned fruits and vegetables during the meal, meaning after one has eaten an olive’s volume (approximately 27 grams) of bread following the “Hamotzi” blessing. This was indeed the custom of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l.
Reciting the Blessing First
Are Blessings Recited on These Foods
When the various vegetables (black-eyed peas, leek, pumpkin, and spinach) and the meat of the sheep’s head are eaten during the meal, a “Ha’adama” or “Shehakol” blessing (respectively) should not be recited before eating them, for the “Hamotzi” blessing exempts them even when these items are eaten without bread since cooked vegetables are usually eaten along with bread.
When the various fruits (dates, pomegranates, and apples dipped in honey) are eaten during the meal, one must recite the “Ha’etz” blessing before eating them, for the “Hamotzi” blessing does not exempt them as they are not usually eaten together with bread.
When the “Yehi Ratzon” is Recited
Some have the custom to first recite the “Yehi Ratzon” text and only then to recite the appropriate blessing and eat. This custom is quoted by the Sefer Mateh Moshe (Chapter 590) and others. Nevertheless, this custom is not recommended since it is inappropriate to pose our own requests before blessing and praising Hashem. The prevalent custom is therefore to recite the blessing, taste the food, recite the “Yehi Ratzon” text, and then continue eating the food. This was indeed the custom of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l. He proceeds to support this ruling from a Gemara (Nedarim 32b) which states that Shem, son of Noach, also known as Malki Tzedek King of Shalem, who approached Avraham Avinu with bread and wine after winning the war against the four mighty kings. He blessed Avraham saying, “Blessed is Avram to G-d on high Who created Heaven and earth.” Only afterwards did he exclaim, “And blessed is G-d on high Who delivered your enemies in your hands.” Avraham Avinu exclaimed to Shem, “Does the blessing to a servant precede the blessing to the master?” Here too, it is therefore preferable to first recite the appropriate blessing on the food, taste a little bit, and only then recite the “Yehi Ratzon” text, which is our personal request for Heavenly mercy. (See Chazon Ovadia- Yamim Nora’im, page 94 and on)
Day and Night
Maran Ha’Chida writes (in his Machazik Beracha, Chapter 583) that the custom is to perform the symbolic eating of these foods on the second night of Rosh Hashanah as well. The Ben Ish Hai (Parashat Nitzavim) writes that it is customary to hold this order on both daytime meals of Rosh Hashanah. Nevertheless, the prevalent custom is to hold this symbolic order only during the Rosh Hashanah night meals. This was indeed the custom of Maran zt”l.
Every member of the household may recite the respective blessings and “Yehi Ratzon” texts on their own and they are not obligated to listen to the recitation of the head of the household and fulfill their obligation in that manner. One may nevertheless do as one pleases in this regard.
The Customary Order for the Nights of Rosh Hashanah
For the customary order of the nights of Rosh Hashanah, click here.